It was a lazy Sunday afternoon. In downtown Milan, Silvio Berlusconi had just finished whipping up the crowds at a party rally. Suddenly a man (later identified as a 42-year-old electronics expert in psychiatric care for at least a decade) lunged at the premier and hit him in the face with a souvenir miniature of the Milan cathedral. Minutes later, photos of Berlusconi’s bloodied nose and jaw were zinging round the globe. His nose broken, lip split and two teeth fractured, the prime minister was expected to remain in the hospital at least a couple of days. From what we know, this was the kind of random attack that can happen to a politician anywhere, anytime. But opinion about Berlusconi is so polarized and so tense–even within his own party–that his supporters immediately blamed a “climate of violence” stirred up by the opposition. In truth, the hate talk today comes largely from the Berlusconi camp. For example: the premier himself recently threatened to “strangle” the authors of TV and literary fictions about the Mafia for giving Italy (and himself) a bad name. It was “a bad day for Italy,” declared lower house speaker Gianfranco Fini, urging “all political forces to form a common front so that Italy does not relive its years of violence.”
Gianfranco Fini is one of those enigmas that make Italian politics inscrutable to all but Italians. Fifty-seven years old, a youthful militant and later party chief of the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), he used to be known for statements like “Mussolini was the greatest statesman of the century.” That was in 1994. In 1995 he led a historic party congress that rebranded the MSI as the “post-Fascist” National Alliance (AN) and declared that the anti-Fascists had been “essential in bringing Italy back the democratic values Fascism had violated.” It was quite an about-face, but then the 1990s were a time when just about all Italian politicians were repudiating something. The end of the cold war had abruptly snuffed out the raison d’être not only of the anti-Communist cold warriors who had long ruled Italy–the Christian Democrats and the Socialists–but also that of the Italian Communist Party. As the old parties withered, Berlusconi patched together a new kind of power, based on his money, his control of the media and his alliances with two previously unpresentable right-wing factions: the racist and xenophobic Northern League and the neo-Fascists.
For a long time, no one to the left of Berlusconi took Fini seriously. On a visit to Israel in 2003, during Berlusconi’s second government, Fini declared that the Fascist racial laws had been an “absolute evil of the twentieth century.” The comment was dismissed as opportunism by Italians on both left and right, although inside his own party, a faction led by Alessandra Mussolini (granddaughter of the dictator) was incensed enough to found a breakaway right-wing movement.